Most people know that Jews, Christians and Muslims all claim to worship the same God, and certainly all subscribe to the view that their God is the only one. That’s what we mean by monotheism. It is also striking that all three agree about two contradictory principles:
- that their respective holy scriptures are the revealed word of God; and
- that God is, finally, beyond human understanding.
Notwithstanding this agreement, the three religions at the present time (and for many centuries past) have radically different portrayals of what God wants, portrayals that are more often than not expressed with a dogmatic certainty that belies belief that God is beyond human understanding.
Jews believe that they are God’s chosen people, and many Jews have come to believe that this entitles them to control the territory that was their historic Promised Land, even though other people have occupied that land for two thousand years.
Christians believe that they are God’s chosen people, superseding the Jews. Many Christians, at least since the Emperor Constantine’s establishment of Christianity as the Roman Empire’s state religion, have believed that their possession of the whole truth entitles them to impose their faith on others (for the good of those others, naturally).
Muslims believe that they are God’s chosen people (superseding both Jews and Christians); many Muslims, over many centuries, have believed they were obliged to conquer and convert non-Muslims (again, for their own good).
So the three faiths struggle over whose image of God (who is beyond human understanding) is to prevail. This is understandable (even if God isn’t) in light of the belief that there is only one God, and if your concept of God prevails over mine, then you are entitled to prevail over me. It amounts to competitive monotheism, not in the sense of a free market of faith, but rather as competitive power politics in theological garb.
In addition to the often nasty and brutish competition among religions, monotheism poses another major problem. The world we live in—supposedly God’s creation—can be blatantly unfair. If God loves us, as the scriptures tell us, how is it that evil people so often triumph over the good? How can it be that random catastrophes like earthquakes or hurricanes or plagues strike both the virtuous and the sinners? How can it be that people who speak for each of the major religions can be at least as evil and oppressive as the godless?
A common modern answer to these problems with the three great monotheistic religions has been atheism. Atheists simply take the world and the universe as they are, and take all humans as equally subject to immutable natural laws. Atheists see no need to believe in an all-powerful Creator, and strongly reject belief in a God who intervenes at will in the world. It makes sense in terms of understanding both random events and morally repugnant outcomes. And it avoids the religious conflicts that have marked the last two millennia. Imagine a world without crusades or jihads.
But there is a reason that atheism is a minority view in most places and times. People generally seem to want or even to need some sense of a higher order that is beyond their control but still has an identifiable will and personality, as distinct from the impersonal laws of nature.
Of course we have Buddhism, the other great world religion of our times. But Buddhism’s emphasis on transcending this world and becoming assimilated into an impersonal universe has proven to be unsatisfying for most monotheists, who seem to need the very personal God who is causing all these problems.
There is a simple solution that has been neglected since Constantine: polytheism. The Greek and Roman gods were fully understandable because they were like people: they had faults as well as virtues, they had superhuman, but not unlimited power, they had conflicts among themselves that might inadvertently affect humans. They might, just for amusement, send some plague or disaster to afflict some group of humans, but they did not actually care about humans at all. They might be induced to aid a particular group of humans, but you had to make it worth their while, through sacrifices or rituals. Mostly, they just didn’t much care.
Other peoples throughout recorded history have had similar belief systems. Natives of the Americas for the most part were polytheistic, seeing their environment as the embodiment of the gods, who had to be worshipped and placated, but who essentially would do what they willed without regard for humans. The Norse gods were similar in this respect.
One major contemporary religion is emphatically polytheistic: Hinduism. And the pattern is very similar to the historic polytheisms. The uncertainties and perversities of the world can be explained precisely by uncertainty and perversity among the gods. It must be admitted that even Hinduism has not been immune to the perversity of religious intolerance and violence, as witness the emergence of Hindu nationalism as a major political force in contemporary India.
Still, for those who cannot accept atheism but who want to escape the madness of monotheism, there is something to be said for a modern polytheism. We need only look back to the Classical myths to see how interesting and even fun such a pantheon could be, as compared to the God of Abraham, or of St. John the Divine, or of Mohammed.
Take Hurricane Sandy. Imagine her course as two gods arm-wrestling, paying no particular attention to what was happening below (we imagine them above us). The god of the sea was steering the storm along a predictable path, against the resistance of the god of the land. Suddenly, the land god put on an extra surge of power, drawing the storm sharply away from the ocean and over the land, pinning the sea god’s arm. This makes a lot more sense than a monotheistic theology that tries to rationalize how our one, all-powerful, loving God could do this to us.
Monotheistic die-hards will no doubt hasten to remind us that the ancient Greeks had lots of intolerance and violence in the names of their gods, including the execution of Socrates.
The ancient Aztecs tore the beating hearts from the breasts of thousands in a vain attempt to placate their principal god. We could cite many other examples.
They have a point. But at least if you don’t like what Mars is doing you can pray to Venus to deflect his wrath.
Try it. You might like it. But the gods don’t honestly care.
Sunday, 9 December 2012